Two years ago, a typical Wednesday night found Aaron Goodwin in a cramped room at the Mercy Health Clinic, helping a doctor bandage a wound on a diabetic patient’s foot.
Today, he’s staying late at Athens Regional Medical Center, puzzling over an image on a computer screen. What’s captivating his attention is an X-ray showing pulmonary edema, extra fluid that can cause the lungs to fail.
Earlier this month, Goodwin, 29, was in front of another computer screen, pushing “send’’ on an online application that will shape his future.
Goodwin, a fourth-year medical student at the GRU/UGA Medical Partnership, has just completed a four-week elective with the Athens Regional Cardiology Group. Now he’s looking ahead to his residency, the advanced training program that brings a med school graduate into the everyday world of doctoring.
Over the next few months, thousands of fourth-year medical students will apply to residency programs across the United States. On average, each of them sends 10 to 20 applications — hoping to find the post-graduate training of their dreams. Goodwin, an Athens native, is focusing on internal medicine programs in the Southeast.
His goal is to become an internist who specializes in gastroenterology. The first step in that direction is building a strong residency application, one that will make him stand out amid a legion of other applicants. He crafts it to showcase his hospital experience, such as the work he’s done at Athens Regional, as well as the community outreach work he did at Mercy.
This year, about 96 percent of the nation’s 29,171 residency slots were filled, according the National Residency Matching Program (NRMP) Databook. This was the largest match in NRMP history.
On average, program directors receive about 2,000 applications, letters of recommendations, medical school transcripts and other documents through the Electronic Residency Application Service. But because most programs have only 15 or 20 slots to fill, directors must turn away far more hopefuls than they accept.
Students who don’t find a match are dumped into “the scramble,’’ a two-day process whereby unmatched applicants vie for unfilled positions. Not all are successful.
Finding the right residency is a vital moment in every doctor’s life. Residencies help determine everything from where doctors live and what they learn to how they practice and whom they treat.
Medical students prepare for their eventual residencies in different ways. Goodwin, for instance, worked at Mercy Clinic. While that does not guarantee a shot at his ideal residency program, Goodwin says he found the community clinic work invaluable in getting him ready for life as a physician.
“I don’t know if having something like that on your résumé gives you a particular edge over someone else . . . but I think more than anything, it gives you experience. It helps shape your ability to interact in a good way with people of all different backgrounds. So from that I think there is a sort of intangible benefit that comes from it,” Goodwin said.
Working with the community
Dr. Michelle Nuss, herself an internist, agreed.
During her own residency, Nuss worked at a free clinic in Morgantown, West Virginia. Before joining the medical partnership in Athens, she spent a decade heading the internal medicine residency program at West Virginia University.
Students who have done more than just rotate through the hospital wards stand out in her mind when she reviews applications.
Student-run clinics that give future doctors the chance to interact with patients during their first and second years of med school, such as those associated with the GRU/UGA Medical Partnership, help them develop solid residency applications, Nuss said.
“I think engaging with the partners around Athens has been exceptionally important for the students’ success,” Nuss said. Good doctors help their communities, she added, “and I think starting earlier in their career and showing them that pathway as first-year medical students just kind of builds that groundwork for later in life.”
Each fall, as part of a community health curriculum, first-year students investigate health problems that are important for clients served by Athens-area health or social service agencies. They do research and summarize what is known about the issue, analyze public health data, and interview patients, clients and other stakeholders.
This year, the Medical Partnership has teamed up with the Athens Community Council on Aging, AIDS Athens, Casa de Amistad, the YMCA, and the University of Georgia Health Center.
Next semester, students will start working with these agencies on community issues. The goals will include encouraging diabetes management, raising graduation rates among low-income youths, reducing obesity, and preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Alicia Smith is currently completing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. She is particularly interested in writing about the current state of the mental health system and the stigma attached to patients who have been diagnosed.